15 January 2009

Charles Darwin and the Victorians

On the anniversary of his visit to Sydney..

"On the Origin of Species remains a stunning intellectual achievement. It widened the boundaries of knowledge and changed society and the world.
Yet there are also less obvious, but perhaps more instinctive, reasons for remembering Darwin. We still live in a society that was in large part made by the Victorians. We may affect to despise them, ridicule them, even condemn them. We certainly misunderstand them. Part of this misunderstanding is that we mistake their confidence for arrogance; for we misunderstand the paradoxical nature of that confidence. It was built in nearly equal measure on an unshakeable belief in God and on a growing awareness (and this is the debt perhaps most owed to Darwin) that God might not be the explanation, and new or alternative ones had to be found.
We imagine the Victorians as stuffy and orthodox; yet they were the most questioning, most radical and most open-minded generation in our history. Perhaps it is our own arrogance, rooted in a belief that we invented modernity, that prevents our seeing this.
Perhaps it is also that we see so few reasons to be confident about ourselves. Our systems of belief appear to have failed; with capitalism, private and public institutions, the so-called world order, and what passes for western civilisation under physical and moral threat. We envy the Victorians what we imagine was their sense of certainty, their determination to impose a uniform way of life not just on themselves, but on the future. This, again, is a misunderstanding, and one to which Darwin acts as a corrective.
What one of the great Victorian poets, Browning, called "doubt, hesitation and pain" were prevalent. The years from 1837 to 1901 were characterised by technological advances of such scope that they destabilised as they liberated. At the beginning of the Queen's reign, it was usual to find people who had never travelled more than a village or two, and spoke in dialects strange to those living 20 miles away. The railway changed that. There was a massive growth in population and in prosperity; but there was still unimaginable poverty. The thieves' kitchens and slums of Dickens owe nothing to poetic licence.
The first third of the reign – which included the 17 years in which Darwin went from his first sketch of On the Origin of Species in 1842 to its sensational publication in 1859 – was also a period of political turmoil. Philosophers, novelists and poets concentrated on "the condition of England question". There was indeed new prosperity, and it created a substantial middle class: but people down the ladder wanted a share. They also wanted the vote, and an education. The landed interest fought in defence of feudalism, and was not defeated until just into the 20th century: but by the 1860s, with the second Reform Act and Gladstone's Education Act of 1870, the tide was moving unstoppably.
The turmoil of these changes surpasses anything in our times. There were fights on several fronts. Before Darwin implicitly suggested that Adam and Eve might not have happened, the Catholic Emancipation Act had allowed a challenge to the Church of England. On one side, John Henry Newman argued for the one true faith; on the other Carlyle, with his own followers, described a form of post-Christian deism.
With Darwin, secularisation and atheism began to have momentum; Darwin, who had been intended for the Church before he started collecting beetles and finches, ended up an agnostic. Yet there was church building in Britain on a scale unseen since medieval times. Roman Catholics could build their own churches, and in provincial towns imitated the great edifices of Catholic Europe. Meanwhile, the expanding industrial towns, built Anglican churches that were idealised models of those built in what Carlyle called "the most perfect feudal times", to a Gothic plan approved by John Ruskin as the only architecture that could properly connect with God.
The Tories, under Derby and Disraeli, tried to avoid further reform until forced to, with riots in Hyde Park and an exaggerated fear of revolution. Their reward was to create an electorate that put Gladstone, with his heroic programme of social reform, into power in 1868. The juxtaposition of Disraeli and Gladstone was as clear an example of opportunism jousting with principle as you will ever find in our politics.
This, too, was an age when there was room for the genuine intellectual in power: Gladstone embodied that, while imbued with that sense of pious duty that causes some to sneer at the Victorians. He was astute enough, as were other predominantly liberal thinkers of the time, to see where the opening of the Victorian mind caused by Darwin was leading. Britain was a society careering towards secularism, the movement fed by the expansion of education that itself was enabled by prosperity.
This was the crisis identified by Matthew Arnold in his poem Dover Beach. "The Sea of Faith" was no longer at the full; instead, "the eternal note of sadness" and a "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" signified the abandonment of a society ordered by religion, and he heard "the eternal note of sadness". Society would be ordered by money and intellect. Arnold had, ironically, encouraged this: the superscription to his landmark work of social philosophy, Culture and Anarchy – "estote ergo vos perfecti" – is an imprecation to people to make themselves perfect by the pursuit of culture. If the barbarians had to take over, they had better learn Latin.
In a perhaps unconscious search for a replacement faith, Darwin had dispatched the Almighty, the Victorians engaged in the mass-production of institutions: schools, colleges, universities (including those for women), sports clubs, gentlemen's clubs, charities, professional societies, public houses and various others still with us today, as well as an empire that is not but whose legacy is all over the world. The Victorians still wanted to belong: but to something tangible, not of the spirit. Those who fought against Darwin, such as Bishop Wilberforce, were quickly and terminally wounded; this was the triumph of rationalism. Even Carlyle, who seldom lost an argument, was reduced to asking the great naturalist when we would all turn back into apes.
No wonder we cannot understand these people, with their heroic endeavour based on learning and scholarship. Neither heroism nor learning is valued in our society. Why else are those who would spend 17 years writing a book (like Darwin) seen as merely eccentric? Why are our great universities starved of money, and the standard qualifications of our school system diluted almost to worthlessness? Can we imagine a great and properly informed debate on questions such as faith, democracy or the individual today? If we cannot, it is because while the Victorians might have shaped how our world looks and the bases of the way in which we now think, we continue to squander our pervasive inheritance from them because of our refusal to rise to their awesome standards."

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